Work For Hire: Good or Evil?

20 09 2011

When negotiating an entertainment related contract, anything can happen (I’d love to spend this blog post telling you all the crazy stories that came to mind when I wrote that line, but that wouldn’t be very informative and might get me sued for defamation).  One thing that almost always happens, however, is an argument regarding copyright ownership, and that argument usually centers around the inclusion of a Work for Hire clause.

The words Work for Hire seem to be almost universally hated. Artists see it as a disadvantage no matter what the situation, and they can hardly be blamed. A Work for Hire clause or agreement requires one party to give up rights to intellectual property, and no one likes to give things up. And the numerous articles and blog posts imploring artists not the sign Work for Hire agreements would give anyone the impression that there is never a good reason to do so. Clients on the business end of the entertainment industry also express discomfort with the Work for Hire. Knowing it is likely to cause a problem, they often ask me to “say it some other way” or “make it friendlier.”

Unfortunately, a Work for Hire clause can’t be stated another way, or made much friendlier, because it only works if it jumps off the page, yelling “I’m a Work for Hire and you’re giving up your rights.” That’s a good thing, because it prevents people from being tricked into signing away their rights. The main problem with the Work for Hire clause, in my opinion, is misunderstanding.

The reason the Work for Hire clause is often necessary is that, without a Work for Hire clause, collaborators on a project become equal owners, with equal rights to sell and otherwise encumber the whole project, and equal rights to collect money from the project. This happens whenever two or more authors prepare something with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a whole.

This arrangement is fine if you are truly collaborating with a partner or several partners, and you intend to share equally in the final project. Many collaborations, however, are not set up that way. Often, one or more parties gets paid up front for their work on a project, while the person or entity that hired them takes a risk on its eventual success. An unequal division of rights, in that situation, may be more fair than a 50/50 split. The same goes for situations where one party will be solely responsible for selling a project. Without the Work for Hire, there is no guarantee of exclusivity.

The lesson to take away from this (very abbreviated) explanation of the Work for Hire clause, is that whether to include it (or whether to sign it) turns on your intentions with regard to the final product. If you intend to be an equal owner, no Work for Hire is necessary. But, if you intend to have anything other than a 50/50 division of rights, the Work for Hire is the only way to make your arrangement enforceable. That can be to the benefit of both parties. The point, as in all contract negotiations, is to understand and accept the contract terms before you sign the contract.





Patents, Trademarks, & Copyrights–a Primer

21 06 2011

What Is a Patent?

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the Patent and Trademark Office. The term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. US patent grants are effective only within the US, US territories, and US possessions.

The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.

What Is a Trademark or Servicemark?

A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device which is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others. A servicemark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. The terms “trademark” and “mark” are commonly used to refer to both trademarks and servicemarks.

Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, but not to prevent others from making the same goods or from selling the same goods or services under a clearly different mark. Trademarks which are used in interstate or foreign commerce may be registered with the Patent and Trademark Office. The registration procedure for trademarks and general information concerning trademarks is described in a separate pamphlet entitled “Basic Facts about Trademarks”.

What Is a Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly, or to display the copyrighted work publicly.

The copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter of the writing. For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.